There are few, if any, authors who can pull me into a book and keep me glued there as well as Anne McCaffrey, and that’s especially true of her series of books about the planet and peoples of Pern. Whether you classify these books as science fiction or fantasy, and they have elements of each though I favor science fiction as the correct classification, they contain story lines that pull the reader along and characters to care for (or against), all in a straight-forward storytelling style with some of the best world building you’ll find anywhere. The cast of characters is large enough to tell the tale and no larger, you won’t need a huge who’s who for these books.
Over the span of the books, if read in the order suggested below, the plot-line goes roughly so: Colonists arrive at the planet named Pern and begin a colony in the southern hemisphere. In the 10th year an unexpected biological threat, coupled with volcanic eruptions, forces the survivors to regroup and move to the northern hemisphere, rocky and inhospitable but safer. As resources dwindle, some native species are bio-engineered to help fight the menace. Over centuries, the threat is removed, for a while at least, and society, which has devolved to medieval levels, settles. Eventually some discoveries are made, giving a clue to the true origins of humans on the planet. Believe me, there is a ton more, but that will suffice. If it sounds boring, well, it isn’t.
Anne McCaffrey was asked, between the last of 16 books written solely by her and the later (and greatly inferior) books on which she collaborated with her son Todd or written solely by him, what was the best order to read those 16 Pern books, since they were published out of chronological order. Her answer pretty much followed the straight order expected. My own suggested order is just slightly different. Here it is. Note that it includes some short stories which are nice to read in order, but it’s not essential (and make the list stretch to 20).
- Chronicles of Pern: First Fall
- Dragonseye (U.K. title: Red Star Rising)
- Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern
- White Dragon (1st 2 chapters)
- Nerilka’s Story
- “The Girl Who Heard Dragons” from The Girl Who Heard Dragons
- “Runner of Pern” from Legends
- The Renegades of Pern
- Masterharper of Pern
- All the Weirs of Pern
- Dolphins of Pern
- Skies of Pern
It is tempting to think of the books as trilogies, as used to this form as science fiction and especially fantasy reader have become. I prefer to break them into singles and pairs (using the numbers on the list above) thusly: 1 & 3, 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8, 9 & 10, 11&12, 13 & 14, 15 & 16, 17, 18. The paired books can be read one straight after the other, barely a break in the story or time frame. In fact they are best read that way. #2 can be read at any time, it contains five stories scattered through the timeline, though I’d suggest reading it after most of the novels.
The first chronologically of the Pern books, lays the foundation for the events to follow, it’s really the pilot, the set-up, the background story of the series. This is where we get the largest dose of science fiction until nearly the end of the series (more on that in another part of this article). Here we meet the people that by the fourth book and after are only legends, their names attached to places. Here also we see the events which shape opinions, societal structure, values and later, everyday life for all who live on Pern.
The colonists arrive and survey the planet briefly, before settling on the original landing site. These are people who have come to a planet not rich in ore or other materials which would have drawn huge resource-hungry companies which rip worlds apart for their wealth and ship it to hungry home planets. These colonists want an agrarian life and a simplified technology base, they are seeking to escape the crowded, mechanized, high-tech life they left. The basic supplies of manufactured materials they brought were expected to be used and used up, by which time they would have established a self-supporting society using what the planet had to offer and their own ingenuity.
The unexpected emergency which befalls them, along with the geological misunderstandings of the initial planet survey 200 years before, combine to force this gradual regression into an emergency paced run for life, with much of the goods staying behind and lost forever. It is all the colonists can do just to understand what is befalling them and how to survive it.
I can’t tell you more than that without giving spoilers, and you’ll have to take my word for it that there is a great deal more to the storyline. This book is the place to start.